Day # 2, Part II : Acco

ACCO – It is quite unusual to see rabbis and imams hug as dear friends, but in the ancient city of Acco, the unlikely has become the ordinary.

Rabbi Yosef Yashar, the Chief Rabbi of Acco, and Imam Samir Assi, a retired Imam of the city's al-Jazzar Mosque, spent the afternoon telling us about their dear friendship and commitment to interfaith unity. When Assi walked in the door, Yashar rose from his chair to embrace and kiss the imam like a brother. “In Acco,” said Yashar, “we’re different from other places. We believe each person — no matter their lifestyle or religious background — has the right to live as she or he sees fit.”

Acco, a port city in northern Israel just a 30-minute drive from Haifa, is known for its gleaming white stone city walls and intricate mosaics. Though the physical beauty is noticeable, it’s the city’s tolerant population that makes it remarkable. “We hate only one thing in Acco,” said the rabbi. “Hatred. It sounds like a slogan, but we really mean it and live by it.”

Over the past 20 years, Yashar and Assi have formed a genuinely close relationship, which, they say, has bolstered the relationship between their respective faiths. They told stories of visiting each other’s houses of worship, speaking at religious schools, and attending holiday celebrations. For Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the rabbi has traditionally been the second speaker at the celebration in Assi’s al-Jazzar — the second largest mosque in Israel. In Acco, where one third of the population is Arab, peaceful coexistence is a necessity. “Before we have our religious identity,” said the imam, “we have our identity as human beings. That’s what we’re trying to show in Acco.”

In spite of its impressive religious leadership, the city still has its own tensions and difficulties. “We had problems 10 years ago where religious extremists tried to derail the relationship between Jews and Muslims, but we have worked hard to get through it together,” said Assi. Years later in 2014, Assi went to Jerusalem with an interfaith coalition after the terrorist attack on a synagogue in the city’s Har Nof neighborhood that left four dead. Upon returning to Acco, Assi found that vandals, apparently angry at his calls for tolerance, had thrown acid on his car. In 2016, Assi retired from his position at al-Jazzar, but his successor is much less committed to interfaith dialogues. “The new imam is no longer going to go to churches and synagogues to wish people happy holidays,” Assi said sadly.

But Assi and Yashar are undeterred. “Not everyone likes what we do, but we have to do it anyway,” said Assi. “It’s the only option.”

After the meeting concluded, we walked into Acco’s Old City to look at Assi’s mosque. The minaret glowed bright green, and children played football and danced on the street outside. It felt comfortable, even as the cold sea breeze swept over our sunburnt necks.

(Photo courtesy of Eleonore Voisard.)


Sacred stone and the fault lines of conflict

JERUSALEM — Our journey through the Holy Land has finally brought us to the city holy to three faiths, Jerusalem. After two days immersed in the tension, trauma and faith of the West bank, we drove through the Bethlehem checkpoint and into Jerusalem’s Old City, where the fault lines of conflict are tangled in the sacred geography of the world’s major religions. We also got to see the city’s Jewish holy sites through the eyes of Professor Goldman.

We began our tour on a rooftop with a panoramic view of the Old City. Professor Yarden pointed out the tangle of holy sites and ethnic enclaves that spread in every direction. In the near distance, we looked past the Arab and Armenian quarters towards the Western Wall and the Haram al-Sharif. In the distance, Jewish tombs poured down the slopes of the Mount of Olives, feet pointed towards the former Temple.

Goldman told the group about his great-grandfather, who, like my great-grandfather, is buried on the Mount of Olives. These were Jews who traveled to what was then Palestine at the end of their lives to die in the Land. Yarden made the point that this ancient practice was consciously countered by the modern Zionist movement. The Zionists declared that they were not coming to Eretz Israel to die – they would come to live.

We made our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the site where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been crucified, buried and resurrected. Pilgrims flow through the church doors to fill relics with sacred energy and to have a moment of contact with a place that has touched the divine.

But while the site brings Christians together from across the world, it is also a place of division. The building itself is a patchwork of jurisdictions and boundaries between the six Christian denominations who oversee it. Where clergy from each denomination can pray, burn incense, hang relics or repair the church’s crumbling infrastructure has been prescribed by a complex series of agreements dating back to the 1800s.

Yarden said that while many like to emphasize the divisions within the church, it runs remarkably well, an elegant ballet of carefully choreographed coexistence. But the slightest deviation from the agreed-upon divisions – no matter how mundane – can reveal the spiritual fervor and tension just beneath the surface. On a hot day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its designated spot into the shade, setting off a brawl with Ethiopian Orthodox monks that sent 11 clergymen to the hospital.

In the cramped confines of the Old City, it’s not only co-religionists who share real estate. We visited David’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site, where tradition says the biblical King David is buried. Directly above David’s Tomb sits The Cenacle, believed by many Christians to be the site of the Last Supper.

The site is one ancient building with two floors of ecstatic worship performed in the traditions of two different faiths. These two layers of believers generally exist in different orbits, but it is a tentative coexistence. Yarden recalled seeing a group of ultra-Orthodox worshippers, upset that monks chanting above them would impede their prayers from reaching heaven, once attempted to drown out a Christian ceremony with blasts from their shofars. The police were called but could do nothing to settle the dispute. “Israel guarantees freedom of worship,” he explained.

From the roof above David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, one can look eastward across the Jewish Quarter and see the twin domes rising above the most significant piece of shared real estate in Jerusalem – and possibly the world. To Jews it is the Temple Mount: the site of the second temple and the source of all holiness in the world. For Muslims, it is the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary: the home of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the place from which the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven.

While the State of Israel controls the land surrounding the site, the Haram al-Sharif itself is controlled by the Waqf, an Islamic authority appointed by Jordan. Jews can get permission to access the site but Jewish prayer is strictly forbidden.

Unfettered access to the Temple Mount for Jews is limited to the plaza below its Western Wall, abutting the Jewish Quarter of the city. Many visitors press their foreheads against the stones, trying to be as close as possible to the spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many slip written prayers in the cracks between the stones. For some, access to the Wall is a miracle of history and a place where they feel the presence of the divine. For others it is an unacceptable substitute until the day the Temple is rebuilt.

Even the slightest diversion from the status quo at this physical intersection of Judaism and Islam has the potential to send the region into chaos. Reverence for the site by both Jews and Muslims is both a cause and a reflection of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Goldman told the group that when he first came to Jerusalem after his bar mitzvah, the Western Wall was in the sector of the city controlled by Jordan, so the closest he could get was the Jaffa Gate. He was finally able to visit the Wall in his 20s, after Israel took control of the city in 1967. He recalled standing on the plaza in front of the Wall and overhearing a father tell his young son about the Temple, its destruction and its connection to 3,000 years of Jewish history. Goldman said he decided then that he would one day do the same with his children – a promise he fulfilled.

Over and over again, Jerusalem tests the idea that the same space can be sacred to different peoples at the same time for completely different reasons. Declaring something sacred is in some ways to declare ideological ownership of it, yet the city is a tangle of intertwined claims of both spiritual and physical ownership.

Yet, as intractable as these competing claims can seem, and while it’s true that a tenuous coexistence is enforced by armed soldiers and high-tech surveillance systems, Jerusalem also gives reasons for hope. Sitting within the walls of the Old City, we watched the intermixed processions of Muslims heading to the al-Aqsa for Friday Jumu’ah prayers, Orthodox Jews descending towards the Western Wall and Christian pilgrims following Franciscan friars along the Via Dolorosa. These competing currents squeezed, mixed and diverted through the ancient, narrow streets, as they do every Friday.

As the Christian pilgrims approach the final Stations of the Cross and enter the courtyard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they pass through the shadow of another piece of Jerusalem’s sacred geography, the Mosque of Omar. Yarden told us how the mosque was built to honor the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637. Omar met with the Patriarch Sophronius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to accept his surrender and receive the keys to the city. When it was time for prayer, Omar’s assistants suggested he pray in the church. Yet Omar feared that later generations would learn that he prayed there and would attempt to build a mosque over the site of Jesus’s death. Out of deference to the Christian holy site, he prayed outside. The Mosque of Omar stands as evidence that Jerusalem’s sacred spaces can be the core of conflict, but, Yarden reminded us, these two houses of worship can also be monuments to dialogue and coexistence.

Photos from day 6: